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Although elements of the modern state already came to Mauritania during colonial times, Mohamed Ould Cheikh states that the acceptance of modern state values in the history of independent Mauritania has so far remained marginal and contradictory. They are barely rooted in a society in which traditional social organization and Islam continue to carry much weight. The complex social structure, with its ethnic groups, tribes, castes and regional peculiarities, has prepared the ground for a lasting state authoritarianism, which, for Ould Cheikh, also has traits of the Arab-Islamic sultan tradition.

State and authoritarianism

The history of the state in Mauritania is not much older than the French colonisation. Although the territory of contemporary Mauritania was part of the larger state structures of medieval Africa (Ghana, Almoravids, Mali) for more or less long periods of time, the memory of this had already faded before the arrival of the French. Colonization replaced the “orderly anarchy” of pre-colonial society with a powerful monopoly on the “legitimate” use of force in the service of the conquerors. In 1920 Mauritania was established as a colony and administered from Senegal. In contrast to the black settled communities in the south of the country, which were subjected to “closer” control by the administration (creation of schools, conscription, income tax, etc.), the Moorish nomadic tribes were offered a kind of indirect rule à la française: cooperation with the authorities was made attractive to the tribal leaders (above all through a refund from the taxes they were supposed to collect), and the tribes could regulate their internal affairs relatively autonomously.

This system remained essentially unchanged until 1946, when, in the first elections, the “natives”, or at least a very small minority of them (less than 10,000 of the 700,000 or so registered at the time), were to elect a deputy to the French National Assembly. The ballot of 10 November 1946 (and the following) was marked by strong administrative interference and introduced a tradition of manipulation in which ethnic and tribal affiliations played a greater role than a commitment to clearly identifiable political doctrines or ideologies. Towards the end of the colonial era, however, a polarization between the ruling party (UPM/PRM) and opposition movements (Nahda, AJM) emerged. In the name of nationalism and the struggle against underdevelopment, the first government of independent Mauritania institutionalized the Unity Party (PPM) in its third year of independence. The establishment of the vertical power structures of this state party gave the secretary-general/president virtually unlimited powers, and it was also intended to rein in those (“ethnic” and “tribal”) forces that could have caused Mauritanian society to break apart.

The first cracks in this society very soon broke out against this very background. In 1966, when the Arabic language was to be introduced as an obligatory language in state education, intellectuals from the black communities in the south of the country signed a manifesto (the so-called “Manifesto of the 19”) in which they demanded the retention of French alone and denounced the hegemony of the “bidhân” (i.e. the “white” Moors), who were much less educated in French and less “competent” than the “black Africans”. Shortly thereafter, “race” riots with several victims followed.

After these events, the opposing ethno-nationalisms – the “black African” and the “Arab” – were to become the main themes of political mobilization and belonging in Mauritanian society. The war over Western Sahara strengthened Mauritania’s anchorage in the Maghreb, making the “bridge” function between the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa, as proclaimed by the country’s first president, Mokhtar Ould Daddah, even more difficult. The war also contributed significantly to the overthrow of the civilian government he had led since 1960, which was replaced by a military junta in July 1978. The coup of 10 July 1978 was again ended by a coup on 12 December 1984. Colonel Moawiyya Ould Sid Ahmed Ould Taya, who thus came to power, exercised his undivided power until he was deposed in the same way on August 3, 2005.

The military regime, under which hardly prepared officers took turns at the administrative hubs, also gave a clear boost to corruption and the ever more obvious convergence of “traders” and bureaucracy. The short terms of office in the political-administrative apparatus promoted an unscrupulousness that was largely “tolerated” by the vox populi, since they saw in it rather a positive, “male” (at-tafagrîsh) behavior, in contrast to weakness, or even “folly” (vsayyid), which consisted in believing that there was indeed something like a “common good.

The 1978 coup put an end to the era of the Unity Party. Competition on a “tribal” and “ethnic” basis was increasingly reestablished in a more open manner, after trying to rein in the previous civil regime. However, this competition, which revolves around the spoils of the state apparatus and the resources accessible through it, has only led to disagreements, the most serious consequences of which include the 1989-90 “ethnic” massacres and the expulsion of several thousand black African citizens of Mauritania to neighbouring Senegal and Mali.

The institutionalization of political pluralism and elections – which, however, hardly touched the authoritarian and highly personalized exercise of power – only began in 1991. In the nine-month period between July 1991 and April 1992, Mauritania experienced the transition from a military regime to a complex of institutional frameworks and mechanisms based on European-American democratic models. The speed of this transition, with its limited impact on political leaders and their behavior, suggests that it was more a matter of formal concessions to the new liberal hegemony of the world than of strong pressure for pluralism at the local level.

In Mauritania, as mentioned above, there is no deeply rooted tradition of parties. The Parti du Peuple, which for fifteen years (1963-1978) allegedly had the country “under control”, collapsed like a house of cards after the coup d’état of July 1978. The PRDS, which for a long time fulfilled the same function in the service of Colonel Taya and the interests of his environment, experienced the same fate after the coup of August 3, 2005. Revolutionary Marxism exercised an influence in the 1970s, some of which can still be seen more or less clearly in certain parties and movements. In the last 15 years, Salafism has achieved a significant breakthrough in Mauritania’s political landscape, on the remnants of ties to brotherhoods and the various forms of Arab nationalism. The political parties are identified more with their leaders than with the views and “programmes” they represent. They therefore appear to be more or less broad and short-lived alliances based on personal interests and ambitions, or on consistent denial or protest attitudes determined by the most important factors of the perceived and / or imagined political field – “the region”, “the ethnic group”, “the tribe”.

The sultanic dimension

Nevertheless, the ballots that have been organized since 1991 are by no means without significance. Even if they have not led to a significant change in the balance of power, they should not be regarded as mere staging. The election campaigns and the provincial trips of President Colonel Ould Taya, which had become means of “direct autocracy,” revealed something very important in the nature of the Mauritanian state. In a way, they combined what I would almost call its sultanic dimension and its search for legal-rational legitimacy.

The Mauritanian State is ultimately the result of a transplantation that took place not long ago and is still having difficulties with its roots. An essential part of the models and ideas that determine his practices and failures are indeed reminiscent of certain traits of the Arab-Islamic sultan tradition, however problematic the reference to them may be. In this tradition the sovereign concentrates all powers and their symbols in his hand. He alone personifies the state apparatus. Even if the Sultan falls back on countless subordinates in order to keep his police apparatus and his tax office running smoothly, they are hardly organized in a real bureaucracy. The land and all its resources belong solely to the sovereign or to someone to whom he loved to lease something of it. The economy is predominantly a robber economy. In this state, which is stronger than society and which is primarily based on fear, no expression of political autonomy is tolerated.

It would, of course, be unjustified to claim that all these traits are to be found in the Mauritanian governments of the last thirty years. However, I would like to emphasise how marginal and contradictory the inclusion and inclusion of modern state values in the leadership of the Mauritanian state has been. Although there is probably a universal aspiration for justice among the Mauritanians, the weight of traditional social organisation and Islam, the very limited impact of forms of division of labour associated with capitalism and the development and current state of the education system hardly lead them to demand and adopt a liberal democracy along European lines. The combination of tradition and religion is not very suitable for producing diversity of opinion. On the other hand, it is an excellent field of activity for any autocratic enterprise that invokes “good values”.

The previous remarks essentially referred to the long 21-year presidency of Colonel Moawiyya Ouild Sid Ahmed Ould Taya, which ended with the coup d’état of 3 August 2005. After a two-year transitional period directly administered by the military, during which a new constitution was adopted and new representative bodies (Parliament and Senate) elected, the coup ultimately led to the election of a civilian president. The new president, however, was only the vassal of a group of military men determined to block his most important and less controllable challenger’s path to supreme state office. The new civilian president, Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdallahi, was finally dismissed on August 6, 2008 by the military that had organized his candidacy. The leader of these putschists, General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, had himself “elected” to the head of the Mauritanian state in July 2009, after a year of chaos in which he laid the foundations for an authoritarian power that is unlikely to give up. Everything indicates that he is ushering in a new “sultanic” era.